- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The NBA is looking forward to Christmas Day, when a Finals rematch between LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors highlight a five-game showcase.

The NFL is circling Dec. 25, too, but with dread. That’s the release date for “Concussion,” a movie that will give the league a headache and black eye.

After the trailer debuted Monday on Sports Illustrated’s “The MMQB” website, folks began talking about Will Smith as an Oscar candidate. Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the real-life pathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

In response to the buzz, including reports that filmmakers altered the movie to appease the NFL, out trotted Jeff Miller, the league’s senior vice president of health and safety policy.



“We are encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety,” he said in a statement Tuesday, apparently eying the Academy Award for Best Damage Control. “We have no higher priority.”

Guess he’s never heard of “Deflategate”?

The NFL’s first, second and third order of business is to protect “The Shield” and the $10 billion in revenue it produces. To achieve that goal, fan interest must remain high and player defection must stay low. In others words, the league wants eyeballs and fewer Chris Borlands.

“Concussion” could threaten both goals.

It’s not that Omalu’s story is new; he was featured in an 8,700-word GQ profile six years ago. It’s not that CTE is a foreign concept; the neurodegenerative disease has been likened to boxing’s dementia pugilistica. It’s not that tragic repercussions for former players such as Junior Seau, Dave Duerson and Jovan Belcher are unnoticed; wrangling over a $900 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit continues.

But something about movies strikes a chord like nothing else.

Especially movies like this, true stories given the full Hollywood treatment with a major studio, big budget and star cast. Writers and directors take creative license to dramatize some of the events, but they stick to the basic tale. Such flicks are most compelling when they feature sympathetic characters waging courageous fights against the establishment.

Think about “The Insider,” the 1999 movie based on a “60 Minutes” segment about whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, who revealed that tobacco industry CEOs perjured themselves in telling Congress that nicotine wasn’t addictive. The movie starred Al Pacino and Russell Crowe and was nominated for seven Academy Awards.

Over the next decade, from 2000 to 2011, consumption of cigarettes dropped 32 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Concussion” won’t lead to a precipitous drop in NFL attendance or viewership. There’s a difference between watching someone smoke and smoking yourself. Likewise, there won’t be a drastic dropoff in the number of prospective players. Some people smoke for free; some will smoke if you pay them.

But through Smith, Alec Baldwin and Luke Wilson, “Concussion” reinforces the NFL’s status as the biggest bully on sports’ playground. Never shy in throwing around its weight, the league initially tried to discredit the Nigerian-born doctor’s findings.

“They insinuated I was not practicing medicine; I was practicing voodoo,” Omalu told “Frontline” after it aired the 2013 documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.”

You might recall that ESPN was supposed to collaborate with PBS on that investigation but pulled out, reportedly under pressure from the league. It wouldn’t be surprising if the NFL wanted Sony Pictures to lessen potential fallout from the movie.

The New York Times, based on emails made public after Sony was hacked last year, reported Tuesday that parts of the movie were softened to avoid upsetting the league. A top Sony lawyer in one email is said to have taken “most of the bite” out of the film “for legal reasons with the NFL and that it was not a balance issue.”

Director Peter Landesman disagrees with any notion that “Concussion” pulls punches.

“We always intended to make an entertaining, hard-hitting film about Dr. Omalu’s David-and-Goliath story, which played out like a Hollywood thriller,” Landesman said Tuesday in a statement. “Anyone who sees the movie will know it never once compromises the integrity and the power of the real story.”
Based on the trailer, you might mistake the NFL for the CIA.

Or the KGB. There are scenes where Omalu appears to be in danger, threatened with violence, for daring to pursue a connection between football and brain damage.

“The NFL does not want to talk to you,” Baldwin, who plays a Pittsburgh Steelers physician, tells Smith in the movie. “You’ve turned on the lights and gave their biggest bogeyman a name.”

Another character is incredulous when he tells Smith: “You’re going to war, with a corporation that owns a day of the week!”

The NFL wishes it was never made but I can’t wait to see it.

As Terrell Owens would say, get your popcorn ready.

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